What all the efforts to map "civic tech" miss
Microsoft recently released a map of the "civic tech" landscape at the BetaNYC #CodeAcross event. The tool offers a cool way to interactively see the connections between various companies, NGO's, governments and notable individuals.
What actually is civic tech?
The term was popularized in Code for America circles like BetaNYC and refer to the growing "movement" to bring the people and power of the web to government.
Of course, these folks are quick to point out that they don't mean ed tech, which is it's own category complete with it's own ecosystem of branded startups and investors. That always struck me as weird since what is more civic than educating the next generation?
In addition, they want to make a clear distinction with both existing IT providers and more infrastructural initiatives like IBM's Smart Cities initiative. They want to frame those as "closed" ecosystems that aren't "open" to the web like their signature data portal efforts.
But when you get right down to it, most of the organizations that actually use open data tend to be large professional service firms and domain specific corporations. So what we're left with to define civic tech is slick web apps developed specifically for existing government organizations. Mostly in the US and UK.
That helps contextualize slogans like Jennifer Palhka's claim that they're "reinventing citizenship." These folks have their origins in the web, and that rather unfortunate phrase strikes me as a sort of quick and dirty startup pitch.
Yet we need more. Pioneering digitally native public institutions will require a coherent intellectual framework.
Are we just trying to give "gov" a better UI/UX?
Focusing on simply "disrupting" existing stodgy IT contractors and their terrible tools would be to sell the digital revolution short. Way short.
We live in a world where the largest hotel chain is a combination of your neighbor and the "cloud" and where automated cars are already driving our streets.
Why then do we just want to do a better job virtualizing industrial era organizations? AirBnB illustrates that the web does not merely enable us to have a more seamless experience with Hilton.
The digital revolution enables new categories of institutional arrangements.
Why this time is different
(Hint: it's not because "Hey Ruby on Rails!")
Of course, that sort of big claim has been stated before. In fact, that sort of rhetoric was part and parcel of the dot com boom. And yes there are a lot of annoying pop-phrases and books and Ted talks explaining how networks are the hottest thing since sliced bread.
That doesn't change the fact that the digital revolution enables something new. People have been renting out their homes since the dawn of civilization. Never before though have these sorts of peer to peer interactions been able to happen so easily at such large scale and with the robust information architecture to build trust between strangers.
Why is this happening now? As netscape co-founder Mark Andreesen memorably puts it, the barriers are no longer technical and "software is eating the world."
And that's where things get interesting. Where are the barriers not merely technological? (Hint: we've been talking about a big area this whole time.)
For a variety of political and organizational reasons, government bureaucracies have struggled to adapt to the digital revolution. Note the knee jerk reaction is to get frustrated and want to march to city hall to "demand accountability" but not all the reasons are bad.
Basic public services demand far greater reliability than tech startups. You wouldn't shrug off the subway throwing up a 404 fail whale every couple times you tried it. So in many ways, it's not surprising you see less digital experimentation in government.
Yet that doesn't mean there aren't huge frontiers for how government might adapt to the digital world we live in. Here's my favorite example: schools.
That conversation usually starts with shiny ed tech tools, but I'm reminded of the conversations I've had with teachers who would say their favorite ed tech tools were dropbox or youtube. (Reminding us once again that these categories are largely for the sexy startup-foundation-investor class and not the people that actually use the tools).
And those same teachers would be most grateful for not yet-another-slick-tool but an actual human who could walk them and their students through the wealth of resources available -- both on and offline. I suppose I'm biased though. I spent the past few years in LA as the volunteer Director of an education nonprofit that did just that: serving as a matchmaker between teachers and people that can effectively support them in educating the next generation.
That's just the sort of viral, networked interactions that something like AirBnB can help scale. So why not build that? Hey sounds like we have an idea...
PS There's a host of other issues that connect here that complicate the civic tech space that I didn't have time to comment on here: the question for a new science of cities that's predicated on all the oodles of data created by the digital revolution, the more old school local government reform cottage industry that I've been a part of in California, the effort to ingrain a data culture into government through the "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it" ethos (a big part of what you saw in NYC these past few years and which somewhat echos the scientific management rhetoric of the turn of the last century), and the whole other political mileau that defines, you know, actual government.
Then of course there's mega-trends like the Great Stagnation that define the world government operates in but that's a story for another day.